The Many-Colored Land

Julian May’s The Many-Colored Land is one of those weirdly dated books about the future.[1] Written at the start of the 1980s, it starts off in the twenty-second or third century. Humanity has joined the galactic milieu, an orderly conglomeration of species across the galaxy. But not everyone neatly fits into the expectations placed on humanity by their newfound neighbors. Fortunately for the misfits, there’s an escape hatch: a one-way portal to the Rhone valley in the Pliocene era, six million years in the past.[2] Pioneers and hermits travel back, thinking they’ll take on an unspoiled planet with a backpack’s worth of surprisingly compact survival gear. Only they discover that Pliocene Earth is inhabited by two refugee alien races from another galaxy, one of whom loses no time in enslaving all these free laborers arriving from the future. Hijinks ensue.

The aforementioned weirdness of The Many-Colored Land comes from two areas, primarily. The premise of the future is that the aliens save humanity from itself. Energy becomes relatively clean and cheap and interstellar travel a daily thing, thus defusing the concerns of overpopulation and resource scarcity. The general trend in future worldbuilding in recent years has been toward humanity has been equal parts “the human race is screwed” and “it’s up to us to keep ourselves alive and prosperous.” So that initial set-up was off, but it works, because once the action shifts to the Pliocene — and really, that took forever, almost half the book — it really is up to the humans to save themselves.

The second weird part is the way characters talk. Maybe it’s down to May extrapolating about how language might develop as society changes and people’s roles become more specialized, but it seemed as though there was a lot of clipped, abbreviated dialogue with spontaneous, corny turns of phrase tossed in. Sort of like Heinlein characters’ dialogue, actually.

Anyway, the story really kicks into gear in the Pliocene. Our troupe of chrononauts are divided up based on their psychic potential. Some in the group are elevated thanks to psi-boosting technology to companion status with the alien slavers as a way to bolster their numbers through collaboration and a despicable breeding program. Others become everyday slaves, right up to the point where they manage to escape and join a motley community of escaped slaves in hiding, who happen to have a plan to undermine their overlords. Cue further hijinks.

One of the things I really enjoyed about The Many-Colored Land was the geological and biological elements, playing with the then and now of what the world looks like. Characters have to mediate among their foreknowledge of the world to come, what science’s educated guesses are about how Pliocene Earth and its creatures looked and worked and how it actually turns out in the moment.[3]

So, The Many-Colored Land. Kinda hokey in its vision of the future and the people who wouldn’t want to live there, but still interesting enough for me to track down the next volume, The Golden Torc. This book kicks off a whole saga of Pliocene exile, according to the cover, so I’m hoping there’s more to come than the simple overthrow of the aliens. I’m certainly interested to find out what happened to the second band of characters that passed out of the focus of this first volume.


[1] Actually, those aren’t so uncommon, are they?

[2] Which might actually be the Messinian era, but again, written thirty years ago.

[3] I hope to someday find a work of antediluvian fiction, a story set before or during the capital F Flood without it being, say, the Bible.

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About Tyler

In the wilds of Vermont.
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3 Responses to The Many-Colored Land

  1. Robin says:

    About Footnote #3: There is a version of the Capital “F” Flood coming up in this series, although you might find it a bit watered-down (cue drum roll). You’ll catch a lot of similar legends and archetypes that she’s worked in “origin stories” for as you go along. I think the flood is in The Golden Torc. It’s been a long time since I read those books.

  2. Pingback: The Golden Torc | Meaning is Free

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